Tuesday, August 22, 2006

A Little Black Bag

by Matthew Sanborn Smith

Ahmed drew attention as soon as he entered the dusty shop. Bakr's shop was a known haunt of wizards and young men Ahmed's age would only run in and out and then only on a dare. Even that had stopped once Bakr hired the guard outside. But Ahmed showed the guard his purse to prove he didn't mean to waste anyone's time. He nosed about the place patiently while waiting for a tall, bald Assyrian in blue robes to finish his business and leave. The man paid in papers instead of gold which made Ahmed uncomfortable. He hated to look stupid. It had taken a month of research and questioning before he considered setting foot in Bakr's.

Once the Assyrian left, Bakr turned to Ahmed expectantly. "What do you seek, Ahmed?" That Bakr knew his name disturbed him not as it was the nature of this man and his patrons to trade in knowledge.

"Too young for a mage, too old for an apprentice, eh?" Ahmed said.

"Not exactly true. Your reputation grows, however. Much more growth and the Sultan may have your head."

"What have you heard?"

"You're a petty criminal, with visions of grandeur."

"I am a prophet! I am here to deliver the people from oppression!"

"You're here to deliver yourself to a bed of silken pillows and a stable of servants. Once your visions of luxury are within your hands the people could go to hell for all you care."

Ahmed took a step toward Bakr and immediately stepped back.

"You're not a complete fool then," Bakr said. "I have something for you." He pulled a jar down from a high shelf and broke the wax seal. Ahmed stayed back until Bakr pulled out a black bag with a drawstring. It wriggled.

"Look," Bakr said, opening the bag.

Ahmed imagined some venom spitting thing and stood his ground, but there was something else in there, powerful and glowing.

"What is it?"

"It is the power to give the people what you claim to want for them if you use it for that purpose."

"And if I use it for another purpose?"

"There will be more meat for the jackals. I won't weep." The shopkeeper stuck his fingers into the bag, ran them through countless dark, glowing glyphs. "You see? These give you the power to listen to voices of the dead, to speak to the yet unborn. They solidify thought and send your words across the land."

Ahmed came closer and dipped his fingers into the bag. Bakr spoke true. He was electrified with the power of the glyphs. Certainly they would give him the power to do everything that Bakr suggested and more. He threw his purse to the shopkeeper. Bakr threw it back.

"Your gold is dogshit here."

"It's all I have," Ahmed said.

"You're wrong. You are rich in years."

"How do you mean? I'm young compared to your clientele."

"Exactly," Bakr said. He pulled the bag from Ahmed and shook it before him. "The power to topple kingdoms for five years of your life."

Ahmed swallowed hard. The things that went on in the mystical depths of the city were too well worn by rumor for anyone not to take them seriously. If he took the bag, his life would indeed end five years sooner. Five years! But if he was truly rich in years and if he could topple kingdoms . . .

"Why would you sell this power to one such as me?"

"I'm not selling. I'm buying. This bag is a fair price for what I want."

"Very well." Ahmed made his decision and took the bag without another thought.

"A pleasure," Bakr said with a smile.

Ahmed held his bag close to his chest until he was far out on the edge of the city. Beneath a date tree he opened the little pouch. The glyphs that had been so beyond comprehension only a hour before, he now saw were sounds given form. They crawled over one another like insects in a hive and even seemed to couple every now and then to become something more. They made words!

He poured them into his hand and to his delight there seemed just as many in the bag as there were before. Unending words. Bakr was no scoundrel, not by any judgement. This was a power greater than he had seen held by any wizard. With these he could issue edicts. He could raise armies. He wrote words in the sand now to practice and play and watched his thoughts coalesce before his eyes.

What he saw terrified him. They weren't simply words, they were how he spoke. Inflections and idiosyncrasies. He could see his face there on the sand before him as anyone else would as well. Damn that shopkeeper to hell! The Sultan's soldiers would be on him in a night if he tried to implement his plans. He'd be executed before he got the slightest taste of power.

Five years! He'd thrown away five years of his life for a magic he couldn't use. Could he sell it? He didn't have the knowledge to take payment. Anyone wise enough to know how to give Ahmed their years of life would never be so foolish as to do it for these glyphs.

Could he get anyone else to use them in his place? Could he trust a person in that position? Everyone wanted their own power. The people, to a man, despised their lots in life. The damned Sultan, the damned wizards, the whole damned structure had them cowed.

There came footsteps in the sand behind him. Two beggars with knives approached. He was weaponless as well as a coward. With the path this night was taking Ahmed decided to throw himself to the inevitable. He put the bag of glyphs into the folds of his robes and withdrew his purse of gold.

"Come friends!" he said, shaking his hard-earned gold before them. "Fill your gullets tonight with mutton and wine!"

"Hold out your hands," one of them said. They looked puzzled by him and why wouldn't they be? He threw his gold at their feet.

"What's that in your hand?" the taller one asked.

"Oh, this?" Ahmed opened his fistful of glyphs to them. "This is power. Take it and enjoy."

The beggars seemed astounded and afraid, but they, too, felt the power and seemed to understand after a moment what it was they had found. Greedily they swept his hand clean and ran, actually forgetting his gold in their excitement.

Ahmed laughed, almost with joy at their discovery. Now men like that, lives so short and dirty and cheap, they had nothing to lose and the world to gain. It was perfect for them. The men who needed it the most. Of course.

Ahmed went into the filthiest parts of the city in darkness after stopping at his home to hide his gold. He felt generous but, as Bakr said, he wasn't a complete fool. The people who needed his power most were the least protected by the Sultan's guard, so Ahmed moved freely. His hand went in and out of his bag, sprinkling glyphs at the feet of the sick and destitute. These same people were also the ones desperate enough to take advantage of real power. Everyone would have power, not just the Sultan and the wizards. Ahmed would have his revolution.

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